MENA Highlighted as Media Hotspot at 2013 Summit

Themed “Leveraging the Digital World,” the 2013 Abu Dhabi Media Summit began on Oct. 21 with an online video interview connecting the Yas Viceroy Hotel ...

Themed “Leveraging the Digital World,” the 2013 Abu Dhabi Media Summit began on Oct. 21 with an online video interview connecting the Yas Viceroy Hotel to a studio in New York City.
The summit opened with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist known for inventing the World Wide Web, sharing his views on media from a studio in New York City. Despite technical delays in the call, Berners-Lee opened the conference by giving his take on media, the internet and open communication.
“The web is in a way like the press,” he said. “It has a very important independence from all other parts of society so they can report in a neutral trusted fashion.”
In its fourth year, the summit ran from Oct. 21 to 23 and featured speakers and panelists from the media, technology and financial sectors. With a stated mission “[to bring] together top-tier global media players and their emerging-market counterparts,” the summit included industry specialists from Discovery Channel, Google, Twitter and more. There was a particular regional focus on the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, East Asia and China.
Speaking in a plenary on developing a global brand, Disney chairman Andy Bird described how, in a technology-obsessed world, we can lose sight of the story being told. Storytelling should be the focus, he said, and brands like Disney should adapt to the specific needs of its national or regional office.
After discussing Disney’s models in China and India, Bird talked with enthusiasm about developing the brand further in the UAE and the surrounding region.
“I think over time it would be great to start to be involved in the creative community and in the storytelling community in this region,” he said. “One of the great things about this part of the world is that it has great stories to tell.”
Vice President of International Operations at Twitter Shailesh Rao gave a presentation in which he depicted history not as a fluid narrative, but one that has been studded with individual moments that come together to tell the human story.
The landing on the moon was a moment, said Rao. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a moment. The 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square was a moment, and the man who stood up to government tanks was a moment in response.
The role of media, Rao argued, is to help facilitate the sharing of dialogue around these moments. It is a role that has been rapidly changing, partly due to new media platforms such as blogging, Facebook and Twitter.
“Think about how you experienced these moments [in the past] — how did you receive them?” said Rao. “It was essentially through traditional media; the packaging, the slicing, the consolidation of content through traditional media. And you as an audience member were a recipient. You received the content, and that defined your experience.”
Media consumption back then was exactly that: consumption. These days, however, it is quickly morphing into an exchange, a dialogue.
“Think about moments that are in more recent history and how you experienced them,” said Rao. “I think you'll recognize them quite differently.”

Rao used the example of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that wracked Japan in 2011. During the natural disaster, he said, tweets were being retweeted at a rate of 15,000 per minute. News was released not only through traditional channels or publications but also through everyday citizens.
“Essentially what was happening was anybody in the world with the power of a mobile device or a computer could send a tweet and affect the way we thought about and experienced that moment,” said Rao. “And the way we think about that moment was not defined by a few people, it was defined by the collective effort and wisdom and access of information of people on the ground, and people everywhere.”
New media has tipped the balance between its produces and its consumers. Users now have more influence over what information they receive and how they digest it. If they stumble upon a piece of news they don’t like, they can always click out, change the channel or find another source.
"As a media organization or an advertiser, I need to operate with humility,” said Rao. “I need to communicate in a way that acknowledges my audience has power, my audience can participate [in] this experience and help shape it."
Consumers today can respond to the content produced by media organizations, and their responses sometimes gain popularity of their own, in the form of retweets and shares and blue thumbs-ups. The media organization is now not the only one with a voice. People are shouting back.
“In this region today, I'm proud to say MENA is a huge contributor to the Twitter community and conversation,” Rao said. “Six percent of our total active audience is in this region … There are conversations and moments occurring right here at home.”
As an example, he mentioned a huge spike of activity on Twitter this October, where users generated 3 million tweets with the same hashtag: Eid.
“It was an amazing experience to see, [to] think about, as a media organization or an advertiser, what that means to you and how you participate in those conversations,” Rao said.
Even though people are engaged in Twitter and other media platforms, participation across genders is unequal. In a discussion about women and entrepreneurial revolution making in the Middle East, Zainab Salbi — founder of Women for Women International, a grassroots organization that helps women survivors of war rebuild their lives — addressed the role that media plays in the lives of Arab women.
The entire image of an Arab woman does not fully exist in the media, she said, and women are not being represented as agents for political change.
“The youth generally and women in particular [are] the most marginalized groups of people in the Arab world,” Salbi said. “They’re actually representing a new voice in here, a voice that is arguing for individual freedom and citizenship in new paradigms.”
Women are indicators for national direction, Salbi said, and dialogue on how to keep life going in the midst of war is usually led by women. These voices, however, only come from a small portion of the Arab female population. Salbi said that only 30 percent of women have joined Facebook, and the majority of women that are not active lack college degrees.
“[Arab] women are afraid of expressing themselves freely in media because they’re afraid of what society will think about their views, or what other readers are thinking about their views [and] whether there is family prohibition of expression,” Salbi said.
Providing women with a platform rooted in anonymity will encourage women to speak up, despite their fears. But first, Arab women need to address their own distorted images of themselves, she added.
“We don’t see women in Lebanon who are cleaning landmines in the South, or women who have done some amazing entrepreneurial projects in Egypt,” Salbi said. “We can’t progress as a society, we can’t evolve, if we don't start seeing that within ourselves.”
Alistair Blacklock is editor-in-chief. Kristina Bogos is managing editor. Zoe Hu is features editor. Email them at
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